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Jimmy Huddart, Spitalfields Market Porter

May 4, 2019
by the gentle author

A market porter of forty years standing, Jimmy Huddart is proud to display the clothing of his trade. He keeps this apron pristine for ceremonial occasions now, but it is of the traditional design made of the full width of strong canvas, with leather straps and reinforcement across the front where the boxes cause most wear. In use, an apron like this would quickly acquire a brown tinge yet provide its owner with at least two years of wear, with prudent repairs. In the pocket, Jimmy always kept his porter’s knife and string to sew up broken sacks. And the offcuts from these aprons were used to make “cotchel” bags, which held all the fruit and vegetables that the porter might acquire for his own use, gathering it in the lining of his coat as he went about his work. ”Cotchelling up,” they called it – and today, although employees in the market now get a vegetable box to take home, it is still referred to as  a “cotchel.”

The most significant item in the outfit is the porter’s licence, indicated by the enamel badge. Throughout Jimmy’s time in the market, you could only work as a porter if you had one of these and it was a badge of office, denoting its own rights and privileges which had to be earned. At first, young men entered the market as “empty boys,” collecting and sorting empty wooden boxes and claiming the deposits, until they had earned the right to become licenced porters. Before the introduction of fork-lift trucks, this was intense physical work, manhandling crates of fruit and sacks of vegetables, and manoeuvring the heavy wooden barrows piled high with produce which had a life of their own once you set them going.

“I grew up in Bethnal Green, Brady St, and, at the age of twelve, I used to go to the market to watch all the tussle and bustle, and all the porters with their barrows. At school, I was very much interested in carpentry but I couldn’t get an apprenticeship, although by then I had already been introduced to the market. I loved to go up the Spitalfields with my Uncle Bill, he worked for a haulage company and we used to go around the farms in Kent to collect the English plums and apples and deliver them to the market. There was something about it, the atmosphere and the characters – a love of it developed inside me – and I wanted to become a porter. If you worked in the market or the docks you earned better than the average salary.

When I was fifteen, my uncle got me a job with Percy Dalton at the corner of Crispin St and Brushfield St. He was a well-dressed Jewish man, softly spoken, who had started his business with a barrow selling roast peanuts and he took me under his wing. The first day I started working for Percy Dalton, he showed me how to sweep the shop. He was that sort of person, hands on. He had a fruit shop at the front and in the warehouse there’d be eight people roasting peanuts. The peanut factory backed onto the alley where the lorries came, he had these red vans with Percy Dalton on the side that you always saw outside dog meetings and football matches. He was a likeable man, very popular, and people often came to him for advice. If you were in trouble you could go and speak to him, he would lend you money if you needed it. He always said, get a corner shop and you get two premises for the price of one.

I used to go out with the drivers all around the London Docks to pick up the fruit and make deliveries. I looked forward to it among my duties – being a boy, they took care of me and bought me breakfast, and they taught me how to stack a lorry. But I wanted to be a porter, so I asked in the market if I could work as an empty boy until I came of age. A job come up as a banana boy for Ruby Mollison, helping him to ripen the bananas, hanging them up in the ripening room.  I used to wear a leather glove when I had to put my hand under the banana stalk because I was frightened of the spiders. When you cut a bunch of bananas, you cut a “v” shape and they come away from the stalk, and that’s where your spider might be. They could be very dangerous, especially if they were pregnant, and if you were bitten you’d have to go to hospital because your arm could get paralysed by the poison.

Then a chance came up at Gibson Pardoe as an empty boy with the view of getting a licence, and I worked with them for a year until Alf Hayes of the porters’ union came to me and said, “There’s an opportunity to work in the flower market as a porter, would you be interested?” and I was issued a porter’s licence at twenty-one. But there was decline in the fruit trade in the nineteen seventies and they brought in fork-lift trucks. The job changed, it became less physical and where you once needed four porters now you only needed two. I can recall the first time I was given an electric truck. It was one of two milk floats all sprayed up without a scratch on them and they said to me, “treat it like it was new-born baby.” My first trip with it was to go over to Commercial St, and I was making a delivery there when a forty-ton truck came past and clipped it, taking half the fibre-glass roof with it. Luckily, I wasn’t seriously injured, only shaken up. I explained to governor what happened, that it was an accident and he said, “Did you get the number plate ?” He never asked if I was hurt or injured in any way. I suppose you could say, that’s the market sense of humour.

I became elected to the union. In life, I always believed in fairness and I recognise there has to be give and take. I had to build up trust from my members and in dealing with the traders too, yet most of the problems were solved over a cup of tea and a handshake. I was the porters’ representative for ten years but Alf Hayes, who was my inspiration, he had been porters’ representative for forty years before me. The porters’ union was founded in the depression of the twenties and thirties. Although they had to keep it a secret, they invented a form of recognition so they could discuss it – it was “union” backwards, “you’ve got none.” It was lost on those who weren’t in the know, and the union became fully recognised in the late nineteen thirties.

My sport was road running and thirty-five of us formed the Spitalfields Market Runners. Celebrating the tercentenary of the market in 1982, we were supported by the traders and greengrocers and porters in a relay from the Spitalfields Market to Southend Pier and back. We each ran ten miles and the whole of the market came together to do something for charity.

Jimmy remembers when unemployed porters once waited for work under the clock at the centre of the Spitalfields Market and how the union acquired an office so that traders seeking a porter could telephone, thereby saving the humiliation of the porters. Yet now, in common with the other London markets, the porters are deregulated, losing their licences as the balance in the labour market has shifted again. However, after forty years as a porter, Jimmy chooses to remain positive – because experience has granted him a broad perspective upon the endlessly shifting culture and politics of communal endeavour in market life.

Jimmy’s Huddart’s porter’s licence.

The final year of the licenced porters.

Jimmy’s first year as a porter at twenty-one years old.

Jimmy (right) with his predecessor in the porter’s union Alf Hayes, photographed in the 1980s.

Jimmy Huddart, Honorary Fruit Porter to the Worshipful Society of  Fruiterers

You may also like to read about

Peter Thomas, Fruit & Vegetable Supplier

Ivor Robins, Fruit & Vegetable Purveyor

John Olney, Donovan Brothers Ltd

Jim Heppel, New Spitalfields Market

Blackie, the Last Spitalfields Market Cat

A Farewell to Spitalfields

and take a look at these galleries of pictures

Night at the Spitalfields Market, 1991

Spitalfields Market Portraits, 1991

7 Responses leave one →
  1. JOHN WATTS permalink
    May 4, 2019

    Thanks for a very interesting read.
    My Father was a lifelong Porter in Covent Garden. He was the Chairman of
    the Porters Union there, he often spoke to me about his ‘Brothers’ in Spitalfields and
    how they had a common cause to get better pay and conditions.

    The ‘Cotchel’ was an absolute God send for us East End Kids, to have all that fruit and veg
    growing up, s0 lucky.

    There’s nothing like working in a market and the fruit markets are the best of all, I worked in
    both, a great way of life and as good an education in the ways of the world than any
    university.

  2. May 4, 2019

    A lovely story and Jimmy looks so proud in his apron.
    My late brother John worked for Harry and Elsie Jones who had an amazing fruit and veg stall in Mare Street, Hackney. They only sold the best produce and no doubt were early morning visitors to Spitalfields Market.
    I can remember my brother arriving home on a Saturday evening with brown paper bags full of fresh and unusual fruits that Harry sold.
    There was a great shellfish stall close to Harrys so crabs, scallops and prawns (sold by the pint) were often a Saturday evening tea. Happy days indeed.

  3. Richard permalink
    May 4, 2019

    Enjoyed the story. A person to be admired. Thanks

  4. May 4, 2019

    Cotchel (bag): thank you for solving a problem I have been chewing over since c. 1980. A friend of mine encountered the term in prison, where a fellow inmate described himself as ‘well cotchelled up’. The context made the meaning clear enough, i.e. in posession of everything he required, but the origins defeated them (and me). Now we know. Though a deeper etymology would be grraefully received.

  5. May 4, 2019

    PS. I looked cotchel up in the English Dialect Dictionary. It states (in 1907):

    COTCHEL, sb. Brks. Mid. Sus. I.W. Written cotchil
    Mid. [ko·tʃl.] Of grain: an odd quantity or measure;
    an inexact quantity; a sack partly full; a residue.
    Brks.1 w.Mid. Any sack of corn which appears to contain less
    than four bushels may be alluded to as a cotchil.

  6. Robin permalink
    May 4, 2019

    Wonderful story, thank you GA and Jimmy Huddart. Union work is proud, dignified work, for the greater community, as this great story shows.

  7. May 5, 2019

    So sad the porters have lost their hard won status.

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